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When the past is present…
Many have disagreed with the concept. But a dialogue could go a long way toward jump-starting healing.
Trayvon Martin’s tragic death has inspired nationwide demonstrations and calls for action that have reverberated all the way to the White House. President Obama’s spontaneous and heartfelt words about the plight of race relations in America touched upon the need for a national conversation about race but expressed skepticism that politicians might effectively lead such an endeavor.
Obama is right on this score. It’s time for all citizens to participate in a dialogue on race in America because we all have a stake in our nation’s democratic institutions.
Such a day could go a long way toward jump-starting the dialogue on race, democracy and public policy that is desperately needed around the nation, especially (but not only) in poor communities of color. In contrast to previously called for conversations on race (including one launched by the Clinton administration) that bore little tangible fruit, this dialogue should be purposeful and policy-driven in pursuit of an agenda of democratic transformation at the local, state and national levels.
The dialogue would be led by activists, civil rights organizers, policy experts and community leaders for the express purpose of crafting public-policy solutions connected to issues of racial disparities in criminal justice, employment, public schools, housing, health care and overall life chances in America.(…)
The March on Washington’s approaching 50th anniversary should be a time of national reflection and democratic renewal to assess how far we have actually come.
But to continue the conversation, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University is convening a National Dialogue on Race Day on September 12, and we invite all to participate in local communities across the country. The agenda for the inaugural National Dialogue on Race Day will be organized around three major issues:
1. Fifty years after the March on Washington, how far have we progressed as a nation in achieving Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of multicultural and multiracial democracy?
2. Trayvon Martin, mass incarceration and the public school-to-prison crisis
3. Race and democracy in the 21st century: What do racial integration, justice and equality mean in contemporary America, and how can we shape this dialogue locally, nationally and globally? (…)
Community groups, universities and colleges, civic organizations, churches, synagogues and civil rights activists have natural constituencies to organize single panels or all-day symposiums to which students and surrounding community members would be invited to join in the conversation. Citizens seeking to participate might attend a live local event or simulcast of an event at a different location, stream an event online from their own computers and/or share their thoughts on social media with the hashtag #NDRD. Event organizers would publicize their affiliation with NDRD both on and offline. Ideally, a National Dialogue on Race Day could simultaneously occur in every community across the nation, and even those unable to organize such an event locally could easily participate online. (…)
America is well on its way to becoming a majority-minority nation, but we still too often think and speak about race in binaries. A National Dialogue on Race Day should rightfully include the diverse racial and ethnic panorama that makes up 21st-century America.
As we approach the cusp of the 50th anniversary of King’s dream, a national conversation on race and democracy led by activists, scholars, community organizers and active citizens will help us reimagine American democracy while confronting the social, political and racial injustices that threaten King’s dream and our own.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He can be reached online at penielejoseph.com. Follow him on Twitter. The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University will convene a “National Dialogue on Race Day” on Sept. 12, 2013. The center invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.
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Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced on Thursday that the Justice Department would ask a court to require Texas to get permission from the federal government before making voting changes in that state for the next decade. The move opens a new chapter in the political struggle over election rules after the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act last month.
In a speech before the National Urban League in Philadelphia, Mr. Holder also indicated that the court motion — expected to be filed later on Thursday — is most likely just an opening salvo in a new Obama administration strategy to try to reimpose “preclearance” requirements in parts of the country that have a history of discriminating against minority voters.
His statements come as states across the South, from Texas to North Carolina, have been rushing to enforce or enact new restrictions on voting eligibility after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case, which removed that safeguard.
“This is the department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last,” Mr. Holder said. “Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to subject states to preclearance as necessary. My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against such discrimination wherever it is found.”
State officials have celebrated the ruling as lifting an obsolete relic of the civil rights era that unfairly treated their states differently than other parts of the country, while civil rights advocates have lamented it as removing a safeguard that is still necessary. Lawyers for minority groups have already asked courts to return Texas to federal oversight. (…)
Richard H. Pildes, a New York University professor who specializes in election law issues, said, (…) “If this strategy works it will become a way of partially updating the Voting Rights Act through the courts. The Justice Department is trying to get the courts to step into the role the Justice Department played before the Shelby County decision. The Voting Rights Act has always permitted this, in some circumstances, but this strategy wasn’t used much. If this approach works, it will help update the Voting Rights Act even without Congressional action.”
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African Americans have a mostly shared and sharply negative reaction to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the not-guilty verdict in the resulting trial, while whites are far more divided, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. (…)
Among African Americans, 87 percent say the shooting was unjustified; among whites, just 33 percent say so. A slim majority of whites (51 percent) approve of the not-guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial, while African Americans overwhelmingly and strongly disapprove. Some 86 percent of blacks disagree with the verdict — almost all of them disapproving “strongly.”(…) About eight in 10 African Americans (81 percent) say the federal government should charge Zimmerman in federal court with civil rights violations.
Just 27 percent of whites agree, while 59 percent say the government should not bring such charges. Some 60 percent of Hispanics say blacks and other minorities do not receive equal treatment with whites in the criminal justice system, and by a two-to-one ratio, they disapprove of the verdict in the Zimmerman trial. (…)
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — During the height of the civil rights movement, a gentle book about a black boy in a red snowsuit crunch-crunch-crunching through the snow broke down racial barriers and now is the subject of an upcoming exhibit.
Ezra Jack Keats’ beloved 1962 book, “The Snowy Day,” is credited as the first mass-market children’s storybook to feature a black protagonist — a preschooler named Peter joyfully exploring the snow-covered sidewalks in his New York City neighborhood. (…)
Peter’s world was also a reflection of Keats’ own environment, Perelman said, “the city streets where he felt comfortable, where he called home and that happened to be inhabited by working-class and poor folks and by African-American folks.”
“That’s who he felt should be in his books. This isn’t ‘Eloise,’” he said, referring to the children’s book character who lives in Manhattan’s posh Plaza Hotel with her nanny. “It’s a very different New York City.” (…)
“If you look at children’s literature previous to ‘The Snowy Day,’ there are very few positive examples of publications for African-American children,” Perelman said, “and there’s a whole lot of very derogatory, stereotypical and outright racist material.”
Keats, who died in 1983, illustrated more than 85 books. In six more books after “The Snowy Day,” readers followed Peter growing up from a kindergarten-age boy to an adolescent. His race was never mentioned
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A 5-year-old girl is safe after police said she was the victim of an apparent abduction. The search is on for her alleged abductor. Joceyln Rojas had been playing outside her home when her mother was unable to find her.
Police said two teenage boys on bicycles went searching for Rojas and spotted a maroon or burgundy sedan. The boys noticed a girl with light brown hair matching the description of the missing girl in the vehicle so they began to follow it, according to police.
The vehicle stopped and Rojas got out. “As soon as the guy noticed we were chasing him, he stopped at the end of the hill and let her out and she ran to me and said that she needed her mom,” said Temar Boggs, one of the teens.
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President Obama made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room Friday to share his thoughts on the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, saying it is important to look at the case through the lens of past discrimination.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said, during extensive and deeply personal remarks that lasted for 18 minutes. “And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.”
Obama continued: “And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
Obama spoke in a quiet and sometimes halting voice, without notes, touching on both his own experience as a black man and what he sees in his daughters, Sasha and Malia, and their relationship to children of other races. “There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of being followed in a department store. That includes me,” he said.
But he also struck a hopeful note, saying, “As difficult and challenging as this episode has been, things are getting better.”
The president said that his daughters and their friends are “better than we are, they’re better than we were, on these issues. And that’s true at every community I’ve visited across this country.”
“We should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did,” Obama said. “And along this long journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”
Obama said he and his deputies were considering a few concrete policy options in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, such as trying to train state and local law enforcement officials how to better deal with issues of racial bias, and exploring whether state laws such as “Stand Your Ground” might “encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations” rather than defuse them.
More broadly, he said he wanted to pursue a “long-term project” of “thinking about, how do we bolster and reinforce African American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there that need help, that are getting a lot of negative reinforcement.”
It is important, Obama said, for individual Americans to “do some soul-searching” about their own inherent racial biases, and ask, “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?”
“That would, I think, be an important exercise in the wake of this tragedy,” he said.
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Editor’s Note: Jerrianne is a long-time friend of the museum. For years, she served as Los Angeles Superior Court’s media liaison and information officer and coordinated media logistics for numerous high-profile cases, including the O. J. Simpson criminal and civil trials, the Menendez brothers, Heidi Fleiss, Rodney King beating, and two cases involving Michael Jackson.
News reports and opinion pieces have been full of comparisons between the George Zimmerman and O.J. Simpson trials on murder charges. I jumped on that bandwagon with my “Déja Vu All Over Again” post on this blog.
A good friend and the most experienced and knowledgeable non-lawyer person on courtroom proceedings I know, however, begged to differ.
Other than public perception, she said, there is no comparison between the two trials.
I certainly agree that public perception is a common denominator and huge factor in measuring the Zimmerman trial against Simpson’s. But I believe other similarities are present, too.
One is the prosecution’s less than stellar, even ineffectual, performance. Another is that both defendants had juries of their peers racial makeup is concerned. Both trials were highly emotional, polarizing, fraught with the role racism played or might have played in the case, and both were scored by a wide swath of media and pundits as if they were sporting events.
Unlike sporting events, however, in which few other than team fans care much about the outcome, just everybody who knew about Nicole Brown’s and Ron Goldman’s murders and Simpson’s trial, and the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s trial have strong feelings/opinions about the verdicts in those cases.
My friend asserted that Florida law was the cause of acquittal. Certainly, Zimmerman’s claim of self defense was the crux of the case his lawyers presented and of jury instructions. Lost, not considered or even absent, though, was Trayvon Martin’s need, attempt or right to defend himself.
The question that should be asked, my friend said, is what would have happened under that law if a black man were the aggressor and a white man were being followed….
One finding cited in a Tampa Bay Times story is, “Defendants claiming ‘stand your ground’ are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.”
Florida’s “stand your ground” law has allowed drug dealers to avoid murder charges and gang members to walk free. It has stymied prosecutors and confused judges. It has also served its intended purpose, exonerating dozens of people who were deemed to be legitimately acting in self-defense. Among them: a woman who was choked and beaten by an irate tenant and a man who was threatened in his driveway by a felon.
Seven years since it was passed, Florida’s “stand your ground” law is being invoked with unexpected frequency, in ways no one imagined, to free killers and violent attackers whose self-defense claims seem questionable at best.
Cases with similar facts show surprising — sometimes shocking — differences in outcomes. If you claim “stand your ground” as the reason you shot someone, what happens to you can depend less on the merits of the case than on who you are, whom you kill and where your case is decided….
In the most comprehensive effort of its kind, the Tampa Bay Times has identified nearly 200 “stand your ground” cases and their outcomes. The Times identified cases through media reports, court records and dozens of interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys across the state.
Among the findings:
• Those who invoke “stand your ground” to avoid prosecution have been extremely successful. Nearly 70 percent have gone free.
• Defendants claiming “stand your ground” are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.
• The number of cases is increasing, largely because defense attorneys are using “stand your ground” in ways state legislators never envisioned. The defense has been invoked in dozens of cases with minor or no injuries. It has also been used by a self-described “vampire” in Pinellas County, a Miami man arrested with a single marijuana cigarette, a Fort Myers homeowner who shot a bear and a West Palm Beach jogger who beat a Jack Russell terrier.
• People often go free under “stand your ground” in cases that seem to make a mockery of what lawmakers intended. One man killed two unarmed people and walked out of jail. Another shot a man as he lay on the ground. Others went free after shooting their victims in the back. In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim — and still went free.
• Similar cases can have opposite outcomes. Depending on who decided their cases, some drug dealers claiming self-defense have gone to prison while others have been set free. The same holds true for killers who left a fight, only to arm themselves and return. Shoot someone from your doorway? Fire on a fleeing burglar? Your case can swing on different interpretations of the law by prosecutors, judge or jury.
• A comprehensive analysis of “stand your ground” decisions is all but impossible. When police and prosecutors decide not to press charges, they don’t always keep records showing how they reached their decisions. And no one keeps track of how many “stand your ground” motions have been filed or their outcomes.
Claiming “stand your ground,” people have used force to meet force outside an ice cream parlor, on a racquetball court and at a school bus stop. Two-thirds of the defendants used guns, though weapons have included an ice pick, shovel and chair leg.
Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, describes “stand your ground” as a “malleable” law being stretched to new limits daily. “It’s arising now in the oddest of places,” he said.
That’s unlikely to change any time soon, according to prosecutors and defense attorneys, who say the number and types of cases are sure to rise.
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Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville, Fla. was sentenced to 20 years in prison on July 12 for firing warning shots inside her home in an effort to protect herself from her allegedly abusive husband. Alexander had requested a new trial based upon her state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, but was denied that request.
After those shots were fired in August 2010, Alexander explained to police that they were fired to avoid “a brutal beating by her husband, against whom she had already taken out a protective order.”
Circuit Court Judge James Daniel could have levied a lesser sentence against Alexander, who had a clean criminal record and never had any prior problems with the law.
Judge rejected a defense under Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, the same law that George Zimmerman used in his defense against the shooting of Fla. teen Trayvon Martin. According to the judge though, “the law did not allow for extenuating or mitigating circumstances to reduce the sentence below the 20-year minimum.”
Alexander’s 11-year-old daughter was present in court Friday for her mother’s sentencing. “I really was crying in there,” the daughter said. “I didn’t want to cry in court, but I just really feel hurt. I don’t think this should have been happening.”
Alexander, who said that she didn’t feel as if she had done anything wrong, had previously been convicted of attempted murder.
Alexander’s case has drawn support from domestic abuse advocates – and comparison to the case of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who has claimed a “Stand Your Ground” defense in his fatal shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
Lawyers for the defense in the Alexander case say that the Fla. mom “was clearly defending herself and should not have to spend the next two decades behind bars.” The “Stand Your Ground” law states that crime victims can immediately retaliate in their own self-defense and do not have to flee for safety.
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Straight Up: The racism that resides at America’s core has led to the continual dehumanization of blacks.
America is racist at its core. I used to doubt this simplistic claim. Today I cannot. The murder of Trayvon Martin demands total, simple, honesty. A jury in Florida failed us. We have not seen a moral failure this grave since a similarly all-white jury in Simi Valley, Calif., in 1992 acquitted the four LAPD officers who beat Rodney King.
Writing in the same year as that ill-fated verdict, the distinguished civil rights lawyer Derrick Bell declared that “racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this society.” In most circumstances, I treat this declaration as a foil: a claim to be slowly picked apart as, at best, too easy and, at worst, deeply unfair and wrong. Not today.
The most elemental facts of this case will never change. A teenager went out to buy Skittles and iced tea. At some point, he was confronted by a man with a gun who killed him. There is no universe I understand where this can be declared a noncriminal act. Not in a sane, just and racism-free universe.
There is only one universe in which such a judgment can happen. It is the same universe in which jurors can watch slow-motion video of four armed police officers beating a man and conclude that the man being beaten dictated everything that happened.
Two features of this universe loom large. First, it requires immersion in a culture of contempt, derision and at bottom, profound dehumanization of African Americans, particularly black men. You have to be well-prepared to believe the very worst about black people in order to reach such a conclusion. In particular, you
have to proceed as if that person constituted a different, lesser former of humanity. Without that deep-rooted bias in the American cultural fabric, we would find that people would readily bring a powerful sense of basic shared human insight and empathy to the Trayvon-Zimmerman encounter.
Second, it requires that the panel judging whether or not a crime has taken place include not a single member of the victims’ racial background group. It really doesn’t work without that condition. The odds that anyone in the jury room openly rejected the arguments of “reasonable racism” — i.e., that enough of these people are criminals that it is basically OK to treat them all as suspects till they prove otherwise — went from low to near absolute zero when a singularly nondiverse jury was empaneled, as was true in Simi Valley. As a result, there was almost certainly nobody there who would say during the deliberations: “No, it is not OK to view me, a law-abiding black person, as criminal. It is not OK to ask me, in my own neighborhood, if I ‘belong,’ ‘what I’m doing’ or ‘where am I going.’ ” And it certainly is not OK to do so armed with a gun and in a presumably threatening manner. This is why diverse juries are critical to achieving justice in a case like Zimmerman’s.
But that is not the jury that was empaneled. In fact, the defense was wisely strategic in opting for a six-person jury; this decreased even further the odds that the panel would include someone likely to raise such concerns.
I feel ineffable anguish for Trayvon’s parents. Their son has, effectively, been murdered twice. No parents should have to suffer such pain and indignity. I feel sad for black parents from one end of this country to the other, especially the parents of young black boys. What do you tell a black teen today? What should they take from this trial? That a prosecutor wasn’t as good as the defense in a particular trial? That the evidence just wasn’t strong enough? That six honest people did their duty? I don’t think so. This just isn’t good enough.
The reason it isn’t good enough is that the elemental facts of this case will never change, and this jury made the wrong, morally bankrupt decision. We have public trials so that we may all observe and see a system dedicated to justice under the law striving toward that end. On too many dimensions, this trial sent the wrong message.
Truth is, however, I expected no more than what we got. As soon as the jury was empaneled, I had the terrible feeling of déjà vu and dreaded expectation that this would prove to be another Simi Valley situation. And it did.
I might not feel so bitter if the U.S. Supreme Court had not just gutted the Voting Rights Act. I might not feel so bitter if the same court had not just effectively established, in my estimation, an unattainable standard for constitutionally permissible consideration of race in pursuit of diversity in admission to colleges and universities. Indeed, I might not feel so bitter if stop and frisk was not an accepted practice in arguably the most tolerant city in America. But all of these things are true. And it sickens me.
Aggravating me almost as much is the lack of any organized, focused response to all these conditions from within the African-American community. To be sure, this is not the place or time for another critique of black leadership or the black middle class.
Were he still with us, I think Derrick Bell would counsel realism, which to him meant giving up on the naive dream that America would ever relinquish a commitment to racism and white supremacy. I am angry, outraged and disappointed with this verdict, but even at this moment, I cannot embrace this level of pessimism.
The path ahead is not an easy one. Trayvon’s killing demands justice. The need to bear witness here is clear. A decision that is the living embodiment of racism in our body politic happened, even if not a single member of that jury understood themselves as acting in such a way (I’m quite sure they didn’t). That is the power of cultural racism: When it is this deeply embedded in our basic cultural toolkit, it need not be named or even consciously embraced to work its ill effects.
Lots of us are disappointed and angry right now. Seething bitterness, however, is not a solution, nor is violence or striking out. The way forward is one of hard work on social and political organizing, as well as of forcing honest and painful discussions, and a passionate insistence on change and justice. This country still has a serious problem with racism. Let’s stop pretending this isn’t case or that it is all somehow healing itself. The second murder of Trayvon Martin compels this conclusion.
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences and Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.